PASADENA, Calif. — Kris Jenkins has heard all about the big, bad Southeastern Conference. He’s heard far too much about it, actually.
“We’re not big enough,” Michigan’s star defensive lineman said, voice rising as he spoke Monday night in a postgame locker room littered with rose petals. “We’re not strong enough. We’re not fast enough. We can’t keep up with the SEC.”
That narrative helped fuel him. It helped fuel the entire Michigan roster, especially those who had been on the field or on the sidelines when the Wolverines lost to Georgia two years ago in the program’s first trip to the College Football Playoff.
“So, you know, bet,” Jenkins said. “We said, ‘We’re going to show you. We’re going to remind you what this Block M means.’”
Next Stop: Houston
— Michigan Football (@UMichFootball) January 2, 2024
And that’s precisely what Michigan did against Alabama on the hallowed grounds here at the Rose Bowl on Monday night. In their 27-20 win, the Wolverines showed not just the Crimson Tide but also the nation that they were not simply a product of a weak Big Ten conference with poor quarterback play. They were, at last, one of the nation’s best. Because they could beat the program that’s been the gold standard in the sport for more than a decade, coached by the greatest in the sport’s storied history.
Because they beat Bama.
Michigan’s win over Alabama at the Rose Bowl was not just about these two teams or just this year. It was about their brethren and their shared history — years and years of rather lopsided history. Since the 2000 season, the SEC had been 8-2 versus the Big Ten in matchups between two AP top-10 teams, and six of those wins were by at least 23 points. The only Big Ten wins during that span were by Ohio State, with the Buckeyes beating Arkansas in 2010 and Alabama in 2014, the very first year of the College Football Playoff.
Oftentimes, the Buckeyes alone have carried the flag for the conference in the sport’s highest-stake games. Before Monday, they were the only Big Ten team to have played in a national championship game since the start of the BCS era. (There wasn’t even a true national championship game when Michigan last won the title — a split championship with Nebraska in 1997.)
So, yeah. Michigan’s beating Alabama meant quite a bit — mostly because of the way the Wolverines did it. They were physical at the point of attack. They dominated Alabama’s offensive line for much of the first half and then again at the very end when it mattered most, late in the fourth quarter and on that fateful fourth-and-3 with the game on the line in overtime. They also tallied a season-high six sacks of Alabama quarterback Jalen Milroe.
“We had to bully the bully,” Michigan defensive lineman Kenneth Grant said. “Everybody talks about how big and bad Alabama is, how SEC ball is different. What it says on paper and what they look like out there (are) two totally different things. We just had to come out there and bully the bully.”
The Wolverines were just as big, just as bad. They were just as fast, putting to rest the concept of “SEC speed” when seldom-used receiver Tyler Morris outraced the entire Alabama defense in the second quarter to score Michigan’s second touchdown. Running back Blake Corum dazzled and seemed to get stronger as the game progressed, more explosive than he’d been all season — all against a Nick Saban defense. It was fitting, of course, that he scored the only touchdown in the overtime period on a 17-yard run.
That’s not to say Michigan played a perfect game. Far from it, with miscue after miscue on special teams that nearly cost the Wolverines the game. Alabama played sloppily, too, with plenty of botched snaps and busted coverages. No one would confuse Monday night’s game with a masterpiece, but that didn’t matter. The only thing that did was that the Big Ten champion stopped the SEC’s best to earn a chance to play for a national championship.
“In the SEC, they say it just means more,” edge defender Braiden McGregor said. “That should be ours now.”
(Photo: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)